The Draft That Still Blows Cold
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
SAN DIEGO -- Vindication becomes him.
With a late autumn sunset filling his office window, San Diego Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith sits at his desk in a flower-print shirt and lets the flaxen light surround him until everything on this day, in the most wonderful season, seems bathed in gold. He stares contentedly into the glow, then lets a smile dance at the edge of his lips.
"It's nice when you do a deal and everybody's happy," he says.
He doesn't bother to mask the sarcasm.
In the spring of 2004, while holding the top pick in the NFL draft, Smith was rejected by the obvious first choice: quarterback Eli Manning. This happened when Smith called to inquire about the quarterback's interest in being selected first. Someone in Manning's party -- which included his agent, Tom Condon; his father, Archie, a former star with the New Orleans Saints; and brother Peyton, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts -- told Smith, "Don't consider us."
Two years later, Smith has not forgotten this command. Even with his team having clinched the AFC West Division title and with three of the players ultimately acquired from the New York Giants in exchange for Manning headed to the Pro Bowl, Smith still acts as if he had been run over by the entire Manning family.
He repeats those words "don't consider us," in a gravelly voice, then shakes his head.
All available evidence says he got the best of the draft-day deal that sent Manning to his chosen team, the Giants, in exchange for quarterback Philip Rivers (taken with the fourth pick by New York), a third-round pick in 2004 and the Giants' first and fifth choices in 2005. Manning, who comes into FedEx Field for the regular season finale against the Washington Redskins on Saturday night, has taken much of the blame for the Giants' collapse this year and has been derided as a poor decision-maker who is unable to lead.
Meanwhile, Smith began rebuilding the Chargers with the draft picks that came for Manning. He used the third-round selection in 2004 to choose place kicker Nate Kaeding. Then, with last year's first-round selection, he drafted former Maryland linebacker-defensive end Shawne Merriman, who has blossomed into one of the most dominant defensive players in the league. The fifth-round choice was traded to Tampa Bay for former Gonzaga High player Roman Oben, who started last year at left tackle for the Chargers but has been hampered since then by injuries.
It might be one of the most lopsided trades of all time: Three players headed to this year's Pro Bowl -- Rivers, Merriman and Kaeding -- for a quarterback who has been routinely booed by his home fans.
And no one seems to be enjoying this more than Smith. At the time of the trade, he was ridiculed as nothing more than a scout who got his job because he happened to be in the right place as an assistant general manager in San Diego when his friend and mentor, John Butler, died in 2003. Now he is getting his first taste of widespread respect as an NFL executive. He does not hide the scars of the mockery well.
"People say, 'How do you feel about it?' " Smith says of the trade. "I just say 'I'm very happy with it. And [the Giants] are very happy with it. And Tom Condon is very happy with it. And Archie Manning and Olivia [Manning] and Cooper [Manning] and Peyton and Eli, they're all happy. We're all happy people. I'm just glad that we're all happy. It's nice to have everybody happy."